The former New Mexico police officer who used a fatal chokehold on a Latino man is now charged with second-degree murder. Former Las Cruces police officer Christopher Smelser was initially charged with involuntary manslaughter in the Feb. 29 death of Antonio Valenzuela. State Attorney General Hector Balderas filed the new charge Thursday, saying he was taking over the prosecution from the Third Judicial District Attorney's office, per CBS News. Valenzuela, 40, had an open warrant for a parole violation when he ran from officers during a traffic stop. He was placed in a vascular neck restraint after a foot chase. "I'm going to (expletive) choke you out, bro," Smelser is heard saying in a police video. Valenzuela died at the scene of asphyxial injuries, with meth in his system having "significantly contributed" to his death, per KOB.
The new complaint, filed after witness testimony from 15 law enforcement officers from various agencies in the area, accuses Smelser of killing Valenzuela without lawful justification or sufficient provocation, adding he knew use of the restraint carried a strong likelihood of death, per Las Cruces Sun-News. Balderas said he was "focusing on appropriate charges for violent and dangerous chokeholds." Third Judicial District Attorney Mark D'Antonio said his office agreed to hand over the case "given the seriousness of the charges." But Smelser's attorney, Amy L. Orlando, called it a political move, per the AP, noting the restraint was "sanctioned by the department" at the time of Valenzuela's death. It was only banned in the aftermath. The maximum sentence for second-degree murder is 15 years, compared to 18 months for involuntary manslaughter. (Read more second-degree murder stories.)